Thursday, April 22, 2021

Streetcars: Union Traction Company

Monopolism was in the air in the early 1900s and all the hip capitalists were trying their darnedest to become the next big thing. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company dominated the petroleum industry. E. I. du Pont de Nemours ruled over the explosives market. And E. H. Harriman had just accomplished the impossible by merging the Union Pacific Railroad with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Even the tiny county of Santa Cruz was not immune from the monopolistic fervour. Between 1881 and 1887, all of the county's railroads were consolidated into Southern Pacific, with their gauges finally unifying in 1909. But the rival streetcar systems were still a mess. Enter the Union Traction Company.

Union Traction #2 at the Santa Cruz Union Depot beside a Southern Pacific mail car, ca 1910. [University of California, Santa Cruz, Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Incorporated September 2, 1904, Union Traction was created with the specific purpose of consolidating the two electric streetcar systems that operated in downtown Santa Cruz. The older of the two firms, the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, had been running for just over a decade and for most of that time held a monopoly on motor transportation between the Lower Plaza at the northern end of Pacific Avenue and the Santa Cruz Beach, with additional trackage to the Upper Plaza, Garfield Park, and Vue de l'Eau. The younger company was the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railway, founded in 1902, which intended to connect the Santa Cruz Beach to Capitola via a line that clung to the coast. This company was well-funded and well-connected, which allowed it to gain trackage rights to Pacific Avenue and the beach, presenting a direct rival to the Santa Cruz Electric. The rivalry was never going to last long.

Two Santa Cruz Electric Railway streetcars on the esplanade outside the newly-opened Neptune Casino with the Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway tracks at far right with a car parked beside the casino in the distance, 1904. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections — colorized using DeOldify]

Even as construction began on the new electric streetcar line to Capitola, backroom deals were being negotiated between the two companies and several related firms. Fred Swanton, who had a long-term interest in the Santa Cruz Electric but had jumped ship to the Capitola line, was investing heavily in his Neptune Casino and Tent City complex at the beach. He wanted a fluid, functional streetcar system to bring people to the beach from the Santa Cruz Union Depot and elsewhere.

An electric Monterey & Pacific Grove Railway Company car near Pacific Grove, ca 1902. [Mayo Hayes O'Donnell Library – colorized using DeOldify]

Meanwhile, John M. Gardiner, vice president and general manager of the Capitola line, was busy acquiring new properties for the company. His partners also owned the Monterey & Pacific Grove Railway and wanted to expand it. Meanwhile, they merged various power companies that they controlled to create the Monterey County Gas & Electric Company, thereby expanding their power and influence in the region. Together, Swanton and Gardiner wanted to extend the Capitola streetcar line over the San Lorenzo River to cut the distance to Capitola by around three miles.

One of three locally-built electric locomotives used by the Ocean Shore Railway in San Francisco, 1907. [Walter Rice Collection, Cable Car Guy – colorized using DeOldify]

At the same time that Swanton and Gardiner were advocating for new streetcar projects, the Ocean Shore Railway Company, led by Big Creek Power Company president John Q. Packard, was incorporated, with many speculating that it planned to take over either or both streetcar lines in order to build a railroad route across the Santa Cruz County. In June 1904, the company was granted by the Board of Supervisors for permission to build the line but no further action was taken at this time.

San Jose–Los Gatos Interurban Railway Company #2, ca 1902.

Rumors reached a fever pitch soon afterwards when it was revealed that F. S. Granger was moving to Santa Cruz. Granger had been responsible for building the San Jose–Los Gatos Interurban Company and had agitated for an interconnected network of streetcar and interurban lines spanning the breadth and width of the Santa Clara Valley, potentially connecting to existing lines south of San Francisco. However, in early 1904, the Southern Pacific Railroad announced plans to build a rival streetcar line and Granger sold his stake in the firm to the larger company to avoid competition. On June 22, the Santa Cruz Surf speculated that Granger would take over as president of the Santa Cruz Electric at the annual general meeting. The next day, the Santa Cruz Sentinel revealed that just such a thing had happened. Granger now controlled half of the electric streetcar lines in the county.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville streetcar on the Santa Cruz Electric track in front of the Tent City office on Beach Street, 1904. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The backroom deals shifted to even darker backrooms as little word was leaked of negotiations between Granger and the Capitola line's management. Speculation focused more on cooperation between the two lines, which Granger periodically touted even as several serious accidents and confrontations occurred in July and August. But an insider in late July revealed that more was happening and that the possibility of the two companies merging was increasingly likely, with Warren Porter, treasurer for the Capitola line, meeting with Granger frequently.

A Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonvile liveried streetcar outside the Hotel Capitola, ca 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

The ultimate merger of the two electric streetcar lines on September 2 did not come as a surprise, but it was not revealed to the public immediately. The Sentinel was still speculating about goings-on throughout September and the news only broke on October 4, the same day that the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville completed its route to Capitola. The board of the Union Traction Company was a composite of directors from the two companies, including Gardiner, Porter, Granger, and former Santa Cruz mayor and California lieutenant governor William T. Jeter. Swanton and other major stockholders in both firms retained a stake in the new company. Granger surprisingly sold his stock in the new company around November 27 and moved to San Luis Obispo to promote a new electric streetcar line there.

The new Union Traction carbarn on Sycamore and Pacific showing a streetcar and repair vehicle in two bays and the passenger waiting area and office at the corner, 1905. [Randolph Brandt Collection, UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Within weeks of consolidation, the two streetcar systems were unified and new timetables released to coordinate the various lines. The Santa Cruz Beach returned to having only a single streetcar track and cars to Capitola began at the corner of Soquel and Pacific Avenues. The entire system encompassed 18 miles of track with branch lines to Vue de l'Eau on the West Side and to Arana Gulch. Plans to build a track across the San Lorenzo River and a line up to the California Powder Works via the Ocean Street cemetery were both abandoned as being too costly. Meanwhile, the old and somewhat dilapidated Pacific Avenue Street Railroad carbarn at Pacific Avenue was demolished and replaced with a new structure to house the many cars of the system, provide a maintenance facility, and protect the network's electrical motors that powered the overhead wires.

Changing times—a Santa Cruz, Capitola and Watsonville Railway streetcar at Vue de l'Eau following its merger with the Santa Cruz Electric Railway, 1904. [Jim Vail – colorized using DeOldify]

By 1905, the dust had begun to settle on the politics around the consolidation and the board of directors began to take action on their long-term plans. Service along several of the small branches was cut back, including streetcars to the San Lorenzo River at the beach, up Arana Gulch, down Center Street, and up Walnut Avenue to Mission Street. The latter was reduced to Rincon (Chestnut) Street, where it could access the Park Street railroad station. Meanwhile, Martin V. McQuigg, a board member who represented the interests of the Monterey County Gas & Electric Company, began advocating for a connected service between Santa Cruz and Monterey, with an extension of the line to Salinas. Monterey County supported this plan by donating a 50-foot-wide right-of-way and $50,000 to build the line. However, McQuigg was not able to convince Gardiner and his faction, which were eager to sell the streetcar system to the Ocean Shore Railway.

The main streetcar track down Capitola Avenue to the Hotel Capitola, ca 1913.  [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

In September 1905, Gardiner entered negotiations with Henry Huntington of Los Angeles with the goal of eventually unifying all of the electric railroad systems from San Francisco to San Diego into one vast system. The immediate goal was to create a Santa Cruz-Monterey Counties network that could later be extended to Hollister to the east and linked to the Ocean Shore Railway to the north. Unfortunately for Gardiner, Huntington dropped out of negotiations and the plan fell apart. Gardiner and McQuigg decided that their futures were elsewhere and sold their stakes in Union Traction. This placed control of the company into the hands of James W. Forgeus, a former Capitola line stockholder who had not yet given up hope on an Ocean Shore deal.

Union Traction #2 with closed side panelling on the Vue de l'Eau line, ca 1910.  [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite losing funding, the Ocean Shore Railway's directors decided to build its railroad anyway and grading began September 17, 1905 from Santa Cruz. This put Forgeus in an interesting position since he supported the railroad's plan but was aware of its potential for failure since the Ocean Shore was at least the sixteenth company to propose a route to San Francisco via the coast. In late 1905, Ocean Shore attempted to buy Union Traction outright in order to acquire its electrical plant and rights-of-way, but Forgeus rejected the offer. After further negotiations, however, the Ocean Shore purchased Union Traction on February 5, 1906 and began running a streetcar down Beach Street to the San Lorenzo River in order to secure a right to build a mainline track there at a later point in time. Ocean Shore control over Union Traction proved brief, however, when it stopped making payments shortly after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Control of the streetcar company reverted back to its former directors around mid-June.

A Union Traction car on Garfield Avenue near Vue de l'Eau, September 1907. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Following the Neptune Casino fire on June 22, Forgeus approached a group of men planning to rebuild the casino and bath house complex at the Santa Cruz Main Beach. The leader of these men was John Martin, who co-founded Pacific Gas & Electric Company in October 1905 and had helped consolidate the Santa Cruz Electric Light & Gas Company and the Co-operative Electric Light Company into the Coast Counties Power Company. As an electric company itself, Union Traction had a mutual interest in working with Coast Counties and Martin. On July 7, Coast Counties bought Union Traction and most of the former board members resigned. Martin took over as president and moved the corporate offices to San Francisco.

The Union Traction maintenance-of-way vehicle with crew on Mission Street near Santa Cruz High School, ca 1915.  [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Like the previous owners of Union Traction, Martin set out a grand plan for his streetcar network. One of his first stated goals was to extend new branches out to Big Trees near Felton, to Soquel, and even to Watsonville. In the meantime, though, he wanted better trackage rights along the Santa Cruz Beach, double track downtown, and new routes to the IOOF cemetery at the top of Ocean Street, to de Laveaga Heights, and across the San Lorenzo River to Seabright. In other words, he wanted to double the current trackage of Union Traction.

Passengers in a Union Traction open-air car on the Pacific Avenue double track, ca 1910. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

For many of these proposed improvements, Martin hired S. Waldo Coleman, an electrical engineer who had worked in both the electricity and streetcar industries. Coleman had the vision but money was always an issue. The first thing he pushed for was standard-gauging the tracks and adding double track to Pacific Avenue. All of the Santa Cruz streetcar tracks had been narrow-gauge since the first horsecars began running in the 1870s. Standard-gauging would allow the cars to directly exchange with the Southern Pacific trackage, when necessary, and also would make acquiring parts easier. After receiving permission from the Santa Cruz Common Council in January 1907, Coleman set to work and began standard-gauging the line, double-tracking Pacific Avenue, and enlarging the carbarn on Sycamore Street to support the larger cars and increased power requirements. The route from the Lower Plaza to the beach re-opened on standard-gauge tracks on September 13—the line to Capitola re-opened on November 14.

The Union Traction's maintenance-of-way vehicle beside the Water Street bridge over the San Lorenzo River, ca 1910. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Despite endless announcements of new branches and ambitious plans for the future, the financial crisis of 1907-1908 ended the steady stream of East Coast capital that had flowed into California for the past sixty years. Without this money, Union Traction was unable to build its routes to Big Trees, the IOOF cemetery, and Soquel. However, Martin had enough funds for one last extension of Union Traction trackage. In August 1907, the Common Council approved the construction of a streetcar franchise from the Lower Plaza to de Laveaga Heights via Water Street, Morrissey Avenue, and Fairmount Avenue. This project required a new dedicated bridge over the San Lorenzo River beside the Water Street bridge. Grading and bridge construction began in early October but quickly stalled due to financial problems.

A Union Traction streetcar heading into de Laveaga park, February 1913. [Ron Pumphrey – colorized using DeOldify]

Reassessing their options, Martin and his partners decided to move forward with the North Santa Cruz Branch since they hoped to make back their investment quickly via property sales. In December, they founded the Laveaga Realty Company to facilitate the sales of property along the new streetcar line. After months of delays, work resumed on the line on August 17, 1908. A temporary horsecar line was instated between Martin Boulevard and Prospect Heights while construction continued. Permission was received from the Common Council to electrify this section two years later on June 10, 1910 and the first electric streetcar to Laveaga ran on July 2.

A Union Traction car parked outside the entrance to the Casa del Rey Hotel with a Southern Pacific locomotive passing in front of the Casino in the background, ca 1912. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Elsewhere, other minor changes were occurring to streamline the streetcar system and eliminate unprofitable routes. In 1909, the tracks on Walnut Avenue and Center Street were removed and the Arana Gulch branch beyond Cayuga Street was abandoned. In 1911, a short spur was added up Cliff Street to cater to patrons of the new Casa del Rey Hotel. For several years, a dedicated streetcar ran between the hotel and the Southern Pacific Union Depot. In 1913, the Front Street and Riverside Avenue tracks were removed.

Union Traction #17 at the corner of Water Street and Pacific Avenue, ca 1922. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

With the completion of the major construction projects along the line, Union Traction became the accepted transportation system for mid-county. Tickets from Santa Cruz to Capitola cost 10¢ each way and each car could hold 30 customers—more if people squeezed. Streetcars were run by a motorman while a conductor took payment and managed customers. An average day on the main Capitola line brought an average of $80 to $100. In the summer, fifteen cars operated across the network with service to Capitola running every quarter hour. In winter, cars ran every half hour. On normal days, the streetcars were responsible for shuttling workers between various businesses and taking high schoolers from Capitola to Santa Cruz High.

Motorman Moody outside Union Traction #24, a Birney streetcar, at the end of Woodrow Avenue, January 1926. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Financial problems continued for the company throughout this time. The primary problem was that Santa Cruz's population was not growing—it had reached a height of 15,000 in 1906 but had stagnated. Yet costs continued to climb even as patronage did not. Coleman increased fares, cut routes and staff, and reduced the number of staff required to operate trains. Yet despite increased revenue by 1919, Union Traction was still not turning a profit and much of its equipment and right-of-way was falling into disrepair. Fares increased again in 1920 and 1921, and more efficient Birney Safety Cars were bought in 1922 to reduce long-term maintenance costs. 

Union Traction #22 leaving the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for downtown, ca 1923. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Unsurprisingly, it was the automobile that eventually led to the demise of Union Traction, but not for the usual reasons. Rather than some shady backroom deals with auto companies, Union Traction began to fail because the city demanded it pave the roads through which its tracks passed. Despite petitions to various state boards and a public vote defending them, the city still required them to pay for the paving job, the money for which Union Traction simply did not have. In 1924, they received permission to abandon the Laveaga Branch and the Capitola Branch, replacing both with bus service. December 9 was the last day streetcars ran along either branch. The company also sold all but eight of its cars in November. People didn't seem to notice the change and praised the new buses. The removal of tracks began immediately, eliminating the company's fiscal responsibility to pave miles of roadways in East Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz mayor John B. Maher standing beside Union Traction #23 and a new Union Traction bus on Pacific Avenue, late 1925. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections]

Yet Coleman was not finished. In October, he had also petitioned to abandon the branch to Vue de l'Eau and Mission Street. The Common Council attempted to block him and demanded that Union Traction either retain the West Side trackage or abandon the system entirely. Coleman called their bluff and filed for abandonment in April 1925. After months of negotiations, the city, state, and Union Traction finally agreed to the abandonment of all streetcar service in the city of Santa Cruz in August, contingent upon Union Traction providing replacement bus service and removing all streetcar infrastructure from the city's streets. At midnight on January 15, 1926, the last Union Traction streetcar driven by Lee Baldwin departed from the Santa Cruz Beach and arrived at the Sycamore Street carbarn.

The Twin Lakes streetcar stop with a Model T Ford in the background, ca 1925. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

No scheduled streetcar service has ever since operated in Santa Cruz County. Union Traction quickly sold their bus line to the Auto Transit Company in 1926, which in turn was sold to Pickwick Stages System in 1927. The company was run privately until the early 1940s, when it became the Santa Cruz Transit Company. After experiencing a financial collapse in the mid-1960s, it was finally bought out by the cities of Santa Cruz and Capitola to become the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District on February 20, 1969—today's Santa Cruz Metro bus system.

Capitola Avenue at the end-of-track of the Union Traction line, 1920. [UCSC Legacy Digital Collections – colorized using DeOldify]

Few remnants of the streetcar system remain except the extra-wide Woodrow Avenue on the West Side of Santa Cruz and the equally wide Morrissey Avenue on the East Side. At very low tides, the pilings of the Twin Lakes Beach viaduct, originally built by the Santa Cruz, Capitola & Watsonville Railroad and later upgraded by Union Traction, are visible. The old Union Traction carbarn on Sycamore Street remained behind for decades to be used by Coast Counties Gas & Electric for various purposes, but it has since been demolished.

Citations & Credits:

  • McCaleb, Charles S. Surf, Sand & Streetcars: A Mobile History of Santa Cruz, California. Second edition. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum of Art & Histo ry, 2005.

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